2014/2015 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Vinyl Reissue Series; Remastering Overseen by Mick Harvey
The year 1997 began for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds with the release of "Into My Arms," the introductory single that heralded their impending album The Boatman's Call. For fans familiar with the band's output of nearly a decade and a half, the sound and character of this release – intimate, naked, minimalistic devotional music – came largely as a shock. A traumatic separation, rehab, remorse and a brief but intense love affair had all kept Cave quite unsettled and uneasy for three years running. Whatever reservations Nick might normally have held about the aesthetic acceptability of directly baring one's soul in song, psychologically the time was clearly ripe for him to submit such a work.
"Looking back it probably should have been a solo album," admits Mick Harvey. "We knew that at the time." "Yeah, I agree," says Cave. The musical correlative to Nick's bared-to-the-bone approach to the lyrics demanded an equally spare use of The Bad Seeds and the array of instrumentation they inherently put at his disposal. Cave instead chose to make his own stark piano playing the focal point of the arrangements, and urged his band mates to resist fleshing out the material, thereby leaving his emotive outpourings, melancholic poetics and epistemological ruminations that much more exposed and vulnerable. A good portion of The Boatman's Call dwells on the subject of Cave's short-lived but turbulent romance with PJ Harvey. Cave and PJ's duet on "Henry Lee" was a key track and became the second single from Murder Ballads. Cave's lyrics for "Far From Me" treat the blossoming of their love and its gradual withering verse by verse. The subject of love lost and found interweaves through the album from beginning to end.
Cave's other great theme - that of God or man's relationship to the divine - flows in a profound undertow throughout this collection as well. Most overtly addressed in the first lyric one hears on the album. It casts down the gauntlet, rejecting the notion of an interventionist God, the human race in supplication to a metaphysical puppet-master. Cave instead favors of a concept of a God linked intrinsically with and holistically defined by individual human experience. The line "There is a man who spoke wonders, well I've never met him," from "Are You The One That I've Been Waiting For" is characteristic of Cave's mixture of yearning and questioning uncertainty. In "There Is A Kingdom," he paraphrases ideas borrowed from both the Gospel of Thomas and Emmanuel Kant, again positing the inward presence of the divine, a God we carry around within us, that is part of us and whose contours and purpose is shaped by us.
Many critics at the time deemed The Boatman's Call a masterpiece; many more celebrate it still as Cave's most poignant work. But, par for the course, the man himself has found occasion to make dismissive remarks about it, claiming, "I was making a big heroic melodrama out of a bog-standard rejection." Cave has also conceded that he on some level is still uncomfortable with the self-mythologizing lyric and emotional aggrandizement that goes hand-in-hand with it. "For me confessional writing is a dead end," he objects. "There's something about making heroic your own little pains that sticks in my craw."